Can the Italian Market be saved?

Its very roots - humble, cut-rate curbside sustenance - could be the salvation of a revitalized Ninth Street Market.

Posted: November 13, 2008

If you linger on South Ninth Street long enough, it can come to have the feel of a boulevard of broken dreams - and not just because trash bags are heaped on occasion at the very base of the "Italian Market" signpost.

A sausage-maker tried to get a merchants' Web site going. Nobody wanted to chip in, he says. SEPTA bus service got cut back, you'll hear, after stall owners complained their canopies were getting clipped.

Every two hours, workers at Superior Pasta have to run out to move their cars to another meter or risk a ticket: The fine can be half a day's pay.

And so on. It's not just trash-phobic suburbanites who dump on the Ninth Street Market. The locals do a pretty good number themselves: They're in perpetual fret over its identity (Is it going too "Mexican"?) and its viability (Whole Foods is barely two blocks north, and weekly farm markets have popped up like chanterelles).

The question of its very relevance - after 100 years of ebb and flow - is not beyond intense discussion, if you bring it up, over a cappuccino at Anthony's, or next to the walk-ins stacked with romaine on Christian Street.

That Rocky ran here is little comfort. That it is the country's oldest and largest curbside market is no insurance. That it lives for the weekends, clings to the holidays, can be unnerving.

Which is why it is of no small consequence that Emilio "Mee Mee" Mignucci, 41, has chosen this moment to step up. He is the hard-working, third-generation co-owner of Di Bruno Bros, the cheese house (est. 1939) at 930 S. Ninth. And in August he took over as head of the market's moribund and famously fractious - often stalls versus stores - business association.

You can, if you poke around, dredge up mutterings that Di Bruno's itself, by opening a glittering Center City spin-off, is part of the problem: It is one less reason to schlep down to Ninth Street.

But the far larger consensus is that Mignucci, diamond studs in his ears and a hair-trigger hug, is making a heroic stand: "He's basically taking on a second job," said Michael Anastasio, the produce wholesaler.

Mignucci isn't starting off slow. He has a one-year term. And already he has recruited other sons of market pioneers (coffee-shop owner Anthony Anastasio, for one, whose own grandfather started a produce stand in 1938), launched committees on lighting and parking and trash, lobbied city councilmen, met with New York developers.

"After 100-plus years," Mignucci wrote of his new troops, "we are young and virile and ready to effect change in 'The Market.' "

Not just to clean it up without Disney-fying it. Not just to find more parking, the eternal quest. But to get tenants for the empty storefronts. To invite new housing. To revive the gritty romance; to make it sing again, somehow louder than the grumbling.

At first blush, it is not unthinkable that this time - given Mignucci's raw energy and track record, and the right aligning of the stars - the market's latest identity crisis could turn out differently, well, than the last half dozen of them.

But there is a good chance that things won't unfold quite the way, or at quite the pace, that Emilio Mignucci envisions.

There are other market conditions in play, far afield of Ninth Street.

In a drizzle one recent morning, Mignucci cradled a cup of tea and surveyed the stretch of South Ninth that heads north of Montrose.

Directly up the street from Pronto, the prepared-food shop his family owns, their parking lot has been reconfigured as a poor man's piazza, red umbrellas furled at a cluster of cafe tables.

Mignucci said 300 patrons were polled in June and their top request was "more seating." So there, he said: 40 more seats, up for grabs, open to anyone.

One step forward. Except like so much here, there's another part of the story: The back wall of the lot is painted with that towering mural of Frank Rizzo, the late mayor. But it is also the side wall of one more vacant storefront on Ninth, the former butcher shop of one A. Bonuomo, sealed up like a tomb, maintained as a memorial by his daughter.

It is hard to get a precise count, but about 10 percent of the storefronts in the core of the market (between Christian Street and Washington Avenue) are empty - some relegated to storage (as are three owned by the Di Bruno interests), others plastered with "Fabulous Store" leasing posters, some (an old bread shop, for instance) scarred by fire and boarded up, others simply dark, most visibly the shuttered Butcher's Cafe at the key corner of Ninth and Christian.

For these Mignucci has plans, too: First, he is closing Pronto itself after the holidays, but just for conversion to a wine and cheese cafe. Then he wants to find someone to bring in a craft-beer emporium like the 500-bottle Foodery that is such a hit in Northern Liberties.

And why not another space filled with a bustling trattoria presided over by a headliner, say, Marc Vetri, the rustic-Italian golden boy? (It's not such a stretch! His father grew up in the 'hood! Vetri's partner, Jeff Benjamin, says if they ever did a deal with anyone, it would be with the Mignucci family.)

And what about the fallow stalls, lined in Astroturf, or home to a ripped mattress, at this northerly end of the market? Mignucci sees a future for them, as well: Get some Lancaster County farmers in there; have curbside join farm market: What's old is new!

A few blocks south, the operating stalls are piled high with soul-food collard greens and second-quality lemons, with croakers and porgies and whiting, immigrant Mexican vendors selling to African American shoppers.

No $19-a-pound Spanish cheeses down here, none of Fante's hammered-copper pots, or Sonny D'Angelo's exquisite game sausage: Here price trumps local, bargain beats organic.

Farther south, across Washington Avenue where the old icehouse once stood, Mignucci (who runs the Di Bruno properties with two other Mignuccis, his brother Billy and cousin Billy) sees something else, in his mind's eye, at least: a row of new retail, with condos above, rising from the demolition site.

Midwood Management, the New York developer, bought the property: "They must know something," Mignucci says.

So that's his wish list - a cleaned-up market, more parking, farm-fresh produce, lights on not just until 7 but until 10 at night, coffee shops open, cafes jumping, his own Pronto reimagined, looking out that three-story mug of Frank Rizzo.

Maybe then the hip, young crowd that lines up outside Sabrina's Cafe will spend a few bucks after brunch.

Another future, though, suddenly seems just as likely as the economic crisis plays out: a back-to-roots scenario in a market born in hard times and, perhaps, soon to be rededicated by hard times.

It's not that the old ways would be replicated, exactly. Demographics have changed in surrounding Bella Vista - Italians front and center, maybe, but young professionals to the left, Mexican immigrants to the right, African Americans towing shopping baskets, Asians with their own markets a few blocks east, brimming with baby bok choy, Thai basil, and lemongrass that hasn't dried out.

Oh, and there's been refrigeration: So the business for 40 (that's correct) butcher shops that sold meat to daily shoppers on Ninth Street in the day isn't coming back; about seven remain.

But "Ninth Street was built on cheap," to quote Michael Anastasio, the produce wholesaler.

And it is that end of the trade - the bins of fish heads and ham hocks, the cheap cuts of chuck and five heads of garlic for a dollar - that could see a revival unbidden by a business association or promotion budget.

That open-air low overhead is why Philadelphia granted the curb market license to poach on a public street in the first place; "to counter," as a local historical marker notes, "the high prices and food shortages after World War I."

From the beginning, the market was a target of anti-immigrant sentiment and harangues about lousy sanitation. But here it still stands, the droopy awnings, the sidewalk chants, the raw commerce little changed in style since 1915 - though the product line has a new accent.

Isgro's still stuffs cannolis to order. George's stews its tripe. Di Bruno still celebrates truffle season. But towering Mexican wedding cakes totter in the window at Las Lomas, and there are tamales and pollos rostizados, and at Lupita's Luncheria, workers spoon down steaming bowls of posole.

Yes, you can get most of this stuff - the pots and pans, the gravy-soaked pork sandwiches, the bony fish, the hair-relaxer, the cheeses, the tamales, posole and roast chicken - in other parts of the city these days.

What you can't get, of course, is the Ninth Street Market in all its faded glory - fire barrels showering sparks, peppers by the bagful, skinned rabbits in the windows.

So while the economy's nosedive may sidetrack the higher-concept piece of Emilio Mignucci's rescue, it may - without anyone's lifting a finger - give a second life to the stalls still struggling at the curb.

They may not speak Italian. But they are, still, The Market.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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